The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

On Afghanistan

September 16, 2009

The Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a group of scholars and foreign affairs experts formed — or at least solidified — around the time of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, has issued an open letter to President Obama calling for a rethinking of US policy in Afghanistan. Below the fold I’m going to reproduce the letter, the text of which (and the full list of signatories) can also be found here on the Coalition’s website. I’m doing this for two reasons.

First, the Coalition’s efforts seem to me very much like a logical extension of the work that I (and Dan Nexon, among others) did with Security Scholars for a Sensible Foreign Policy in issuing an open letter in 2004 concerning Iraq policy. This kind of “Weberian activism,” in which scholars weigh in to help to enrich the context of public debate, strikes me as precisely what academics ought to be doing — as opposed to compromising our academic vocations by using our university positions as platforms for narrowly partisan lobbying. To the contrary, Weberian activism consists primarily of scholars using their expertise and knowledge to raise “uncomfortable facts” with which politicians have to grapple; in this case, the uncomfortable facts involve a mis-match between goals and capacity, plus the kind of creeping hubris of “idealists with overwhelming force” that is almost always a temptation in American foreign policy. In those senses I’m proud to be a “realist” when it comes to foreign policy, in the grand tradition of Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr and, ultimately, Max Weber.

Second, I’m a signatory of the letter — not as an expert on Afghanistan, certainly, but as someone who knows a thing or three about how American identity is implicated in American foreign policy, and someone who is more scared of liberal idealists with weapons than of most other kinds of people who might be at the helm of the foreign policy of the most powerful military force on the planet.

Full text below the fold.

The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
Washington, DC

Dear Mr. President:

During your campaign for the Presidency, Americans around the country appreciated your skepticism of the rationales for the Iraq war. In 2002, you had warned that such an endeavor would yield “a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, and with unintended consequences.” You pointed out the dangers of fighting such a war “without a clear rationale and without strong international support.” As scholars of international relations and U.S. foreign policy, many of us issued similar warnings before the war, unfortunately to little avail.

Today, we are concerned that the war in Afghanistan is growing increasingly detached from considerations of length, cost, and consequences. Its rationale is becoming murkier and both domestic and international support for it is waning. Respectfully, we urge you to focus U.S. strategy more clearly on al Qaeda instead of expanding the mission into an ambitious experiment in state building.

First, our objectives in that country have grown overly ambitious. The current strategy centers on assembling a viable, compliant, modern state in Afghanistan–something that has never before existed. The history of U.S. state-building endeavors is not encouraging, and Afghanistan poses particular challenges. Engaging in competitive governance with the Taliban is a counterproductive strategy, pushing the Taliban and al Qaeda together instead of driving them apart. If we cannot leave Afghanistan until we have created an effective central government, we are likely to be there for decades, with no guarantee of success.

Second, the rationale of expanding the mission in order to prevent “safe havens” for al Qaeda from emerging is appealing but flawed. Afghanistan, even excluding the non-Pashto areas, is a large, geographically imposing country where it is probably impossible to ensure that no safe havens could exist. Searching for certainty that there are not and will not be safe havens in Afghanistan is quixotic and likely to be extremely costly. Even if some massive effort in that country were somehow able to prevent a safe haven there, dozens of other countries could easily serve the same purpose. Even well-governed modern democracies like Germany have inadvertently provided staging grounds for terrorists. A better strategy would focus on negotiations with moderate Taliban elements, regional diplomacy, and disrupting any large-scale al Qaeda operations that may emerge. Those are achievable goals.

Third, an expanded mission fails a simple cost/benefit test. In order to markedly improve our chances of victory–which Ambassador Richard Holbrooke can only promise “we’ll know it when we see it”–we would need to make a decades-long commitment to creating a state in Afghanistan, and even in that case, success would be far from certain. As with all foreign policies, this enormous effort must be weighed against the opportunity costs. Money, troops, and other resources would be poured into Afghanistan at the expense of other national priorities, both foreign and domestic.

Mr. President, there is serious disagreement among scholars and policy experts on the way forward in Afghanistan. Many of those urging you to deepen U.S. involvement in that country are the same people who promised we would encounter few difficulties in Iraq and that that war would solve our problems in the Middle East, neither of which proved to be the case. We urge your administration to refocus on al Qaeda and avoid an open-ended state-building mission in Afghanistan.

Sincerely, [full list of signatories here]

website | + posts

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.